This is a book that duly deserves high praise. It's the kind of book you get when you take the genius of Douglas Adams, mix in Oscar Wilde's ironic humour, and add the bitterness of G.B.Shaw. And then some.
The book starts as a sort of narrative by one Professor Reynolds, who is a micro-paleontologist, a field which he explains quite convincingly. Now, in his studies in the South Saturnian University, he comes across a work called "De Rerum Comedica" which translates into "The Study Of Comedy" (or thereabouts). What makes this effort remarkable is the fact that it is written by an android - a tin-man, so to speak. Carlton, for so is the android named, is in the service of two semi-famous comedians, Alex Mushcroft and Lewis Ashby. These guys play on the smaller circuits in Outer Saturn and hope to make it to Mars one day, whis is the lode star of showbiz in 2330.
They audition to get a spot on a geriatric's cruise spaceship, as part of the Brenda Woolley Experience. Who is the lady, you ask? Well, just about the only super-diva in existence, with an amazing amount of self-conceit, which results in all irony and sarcasm being lost on her. They get the show, which may have something to do with Alex charming a delightful lady called Kate, who just happens to be Emil Keppler's mistress, who happens to be married to the Woolley dame and also the owner of a huge multiplanar company. Confusing? We haven't started yet...
However, the guys suddenly find all their shows being cancelled and everything goes crazy. They suspect Kate, and after some researching, find that she has a lot of background, including a revolutionary for a father. Then their contact is killed, with the only clue being the mysterious words "Gunpowder Plot". Suddenly, the plot is teeming with characters - two cops who are trying to help the comedians while making sense of the case; a guy called McTurk, who is more than he lets on to being; and some of the revolutionaries who were once led by Kate's father. In between this, the plot goes from a sabotaged inter-planar highway to a terrorist attempt, all mixed with Woolley's almost super-human naive egotism, Alex and Kate's romance, and Carlton's attempts to understand comedy.
Ah, we ask, what happened to the thesis? Well, that is a parallel plot, along with the exploits of all the characters. Carlton tries to overcome his basic handicap of not being human, by attempting to rationalize and use logic. He uses imagery and gives names to things we all assume as normal - like the concept of the White Face and the Red Nose. Slowly, but surely, he gets to his goal, after overcoming obstacles like the concept of irony and why people make jokes when faced with danger. Also parallel to this is the Professor's account, which goes beyond just a narration and delves into his own life, interspersed with his comments on Carlton's work.
The book is a brilliant effort by the author, who is a former member of "Monthy Python's Flying Circus". He mixes humour with an attempt to understand it...and in the process, confronts some basic truths about humans and our needs and instincts. Ripping apart various theories, he provides a perspective that is simultaneously different and familiar. He introduces characters at the right time and keeps them around for just as much as they are needed. In this sense, his timing is as perfect as the comedians he portrays would have wished for. His style is quite delightful and any future works will be eagerly looked forward to.
The characters are brilliantly sketched out. Alex and Lewis fall perfectly into our expectations of the jovial prankster and the sour prude. Their repartee is very amusing and memorable; especially the one where Alex proves that he knows the speed of darkness and the sound and taste of light. Carlton is very dependable, tortuously working his way to his ultimate goal, all the while trying to understand these crazy carbon-based bipeds. And of course, Brenda Woolley is a truly fantastic creation, reminiscent of all those idiots who assault our senses from every nook and cranny left free.
Truly, the plot and the inherent concept behind it make this book a gem. Rarely does such an amazing creation come along. Go ahead, make your week.This article was first published on 29 Nov 2000.